President Bush and Sen. John Kerry exchanged harsh words over who was best qualified to serve as commander in chief on Thursday, with Mr. Bush criticizing Kerry as "the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time," and Kerry accusing the president of constantly ducking responsibility for his own actions.
For the fourth consecutive day, Kerry assailed Mr. Bush over the disclosure thatwere missing in Iraq, and said the Republican president's attempt to compare himself to John F. Kennedy was off the mark.
"When the Bay of Pigs went sour, John Kennedy had the courage to look America in the eye and say, 'I take responsibility, it's my fault,'" Kerry said, referring to a bungled invasion of Cuba in 1961. "John Kennedy knew how to take responsibility for the mistakes he made and Mr. President, it's long since time for you to start taking responsibility for the mistakes you made."
The two men raced from one Midwestern state to another in the closing days of their close, contentious campaign for the White House. The polls, ubiquitous as they were, were of little use in forecasting the outcome of the election. Over and over, they made the race out to be a statistical tie, and battleground states too close to call.
Mr. Bush began his day in Saginaw, Mich., with an unstinting attack on Kerry.
"A president cannot blow in the wind," he said of Kerry.
"Senator Kerry has taken a lot of different positions, but he's rarely taken a stand," Mr. Bush said. "Consistency is not the senator's strong suit."
Kerry will be joined on the campaign trail Thursday by rock legend Bruce Springsteen. "The Boss" will attend rallies with Kerry in Madison, Wis., and Columbus, Ohio – both college towns in key swing states.
Kerry's first stop of the day was Toledo, Ohio. A Red Sox cap perched on his head, he recalled that last year when his campaign was struggling, a caller to a radio program said, "John Kerry won't be president until the Red Sox win the World Series."
"Well, we're on our way," he said to cheers.
The crowd was raucous, so noisy that at one point, Kerry said, "I hope George Bush can hear that — that is the rumble of change comin' at him."
Mr. Bush had his own World Series tie-in. Interviewed on ABC, Boston pitcher Curt Schilling urged viewers to vote for the president.
Kerry has turned the issue of missing explosives into a major focus of his campaign this week, and his running mate joined in.
"They had a responsibility to secure this material," Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said on NBC on Thursday. "It was important for securing Iraq, it was important for the safety of our troops, it was important for keeping that material out of the hands of terrorists. And what we know is, they didn't do it."
Mr. Bush sought to turn the controversy to his own advantage. He said his rival was showing a "complete disregard for the facts. Senator Kerry will say anything to get elected," the president said.
The president's campaign surrogates rallied to his defense.
Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, said the troops in Iraq, not the president, bore the responsibility for searching for the explosives, and he said no one knows if any mistakes were made.
"John Kerry wants to pretend we do know what happened,'' Giuliani told NBC. "We don't know what happened. The best possibility is that those explosives were gone even before the troops got there ... at least it's an equal possibility. John Kerry hasn't admitted that. Instead, John Kerry became an attack dog.''
Mr. Bush was stumping in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, in the reverse order of a Pennsylvania-Ohio-Michigan swing Wednesday that was capped by an early evening crowd of close to 20,000 at the Pontiac, Mich., Silverdome, one of the best turnouts of his campaign. Kerry was focusing on Ohio and Wisconsin before swinging south to spend Friday in Florida.
Mr. Bush's team put extra money into TV commercials in Portland, Maine, aimed at voters in neighboring New Hampshire, where the president is going Friday and polls find Kerry leading narrowly. The race in Hawaii, ordinarily a safe bet for a Democrat, was unexpectedly close.
Both sides are working feverishly to get out the vote. Many Americans, however, have already gotten out and voted.
An Associated Press-Ipsos survey found 11 percent of voters had already marked ballots in 32 states that permit early voting, and another 11 percent said they intended to do so before Tuesday.
An ABC News poll has Kerry up 49-48 percent nationally. Reuters/Zogby gave the president a 48-47 lead over Kerry, but had the Massachusetts senator gaining three points to lead in battleground Ohio 46-45 percent.